Recently, the prolific Michael Lofton brought on Dr. Richard Price, a well-known scholar in Church History and Patristic Theology, to discuss the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Nestorian Controversy. This is not the first time that Price has made an appearance on Reason and Theology (see here and here), and so he is familiar with the atmosphere that R&T brings to the table. This time, Price had some more commentary on the phenomenon of Papal authority and the Byzantine reception of it in the 1st millennium. Some of this commentary simply rehearses what he has already said in previous videos. I wanted to publish a brief article to ask the question of which side, today, stands to gain from his commentary?
First, what does Price say about this subject? In short, he understands that the Popes of Rome, either in their emphatic letters or in the person of their legates, were quite definitive and clear in declaring that the supreme authority of the Church is the heir of St. Peter who occupies his throne in the Roman bishopric. Papal decrees do not need the acceptance by Ecumenical Councils in order for them to have binding authority on all souls of the Lord’s body. On the other hand, Price is equally emphatic in saying that the Byzantine Patriarchs and Bishops did not receive this at all and were of an entirely different perspective. Rather than holding to the Papal principle, the Byzantines held that the supreme authority in the Church was invested in the Emperor as God’s anointed man to order Christian society to meet its end of spreading the mission of Christ to all corners of the world.
During the video presentation, Michael asks a very apt question: today the Eastern Orthodox Churches do not assemble under one Roman Emperor; how, then, is a workable unity between Catholics and Orthodox (or even just among Orthodox) to happen? Price did not give a clear answer to this question, but he added the point that the Byzantines heeded the Imperial power in convoking Ecumenical Councils and that when and if they were confronted with the claims of supreme power in the Papacy, they simply acquiesced to it as any wise and pragmatic man does in order to achieve another goal, namely, the refutation and condemnation of certain heresies of the time. They were acting as opportunists, in other words. Never did they (the East) truly share Rome’s perspective on the Papal claims, according to Price.
Now, I’m not here to share whether I think Price is wrong or right (I do happen to disagree with him, somewhat). Nonetheless, I do want to answer the following question: Given Price’s commentary on the question of the Papacy and the Orthodox, which side is to gain? I’ve seen comments from the various corners of the internet that Price’s comments are a major blow to Catholicism and a great service to Byzantine Orthodox claims. I’ve even seen Orthodox commentators reproduce a video clip and zoom in on my face at one of the Price interviews as if to show how, to my “amazement”, the Papal claims were just scorched off the intellectual surface. For the life of me, I don’t see how the least bit of sense in this.
Price’s statements on how the Byzantine East never accepted the Papal claims can sound very damaging to the Catholic position on these things. And it is true that it takes a huge swipe at the Catholic position. That is undoubtedly true. However, there are two preliminary things about this claim that should be noted, and will surely serve to blunt the sharp sword that the Orthodox blogosphere seems to think shines through the video commentary of Price. First, if the Byzantine never accepted the Papal claims, then that means there were Papal claims in existence. That might not sound very impactful. However, it is. Just who was making the Papal claims, and were they considered weighty? It was no less than the Apostolic See that was making those claims, and any historian of Christianity knows that the Apostolic See (i.e., the See of Rome) was extremely influential throughout the 1st millennium in overcoming heresies and heretics, at least for the first 1,000 years. Moreover, the Papal representation at the Ecumenical Councils represented the whole West, and so the Papal claims are attached to the Western representation of these Councils. Therefore, it was not just a small fraction of the Episcopal presence of these Councils that held the Papal claims, but at least the spiritual half of it all. Add to this that the Papal side was always on the side of seeking to recover a problem that was hatched in the East. The second point is that while the Byzantines rejected the Papal claims, what does Price say they accepted in its place? The Conciliarist idealism that we learn about today? No. The Byzantines, says Price, were of the position that the Roman Emperor was the possessor of supreme power in ecclesiastical affairs (I don’t happen to agree 100% with this, but that’s his position). Now, one only has to ask whether that belief system survived the 15th century? We all know it did not since the Ottomon Turks, unfortunately, took over New Rome (Constantinople) in 1453. And so this Byzantine view of Imperial supremacy might have been the firm position of the Greeks in the 1st millennium, but that system fell out of existence a while ago, has been out of existence for more than 500 years, and has no sign of returning. Now, what is more damning to the truth of something? It’s unlikelihood or its non-existence? The answer is obvious. And so while the Catholic position, as described by Price, lacks the entire Greek Patristic acceptance, that which the latter did accept has been extinguished from real life.
There are some extra facts that come out of Price’s commentary that should not be ignored. Price is clear that the Papal claims were both definitive and clearly announced, and put into the texts of Ecumenical Councils (c.f., Philip at Ephesus 431, Leo at Chalcedon 451, Agatho at C’ple 681, and Hadrian at Nicaea 787). Has the listener stopped to think of what the consequence of this is? That means that the Papal claims made it into the writing of the Councils, which were always understood by the Fathers to be God-breathed. And so, whether the Byzantines inwardly rejected them, and merely acquiesced, has little bearing on whether the claims themselves made it intentionally into the Acts of these Councils. And concerning the text of Councils… what is more significant, the text itself or the way that the subscribers felt about the text? In my mind, that the Papal claims were accepted without external protest means that they were allowed to be inserted into the sacred writing of the Councils, and that surely has to be significant. For which side? I’ll let the reader decide. Now, lest I be misunderstood, I don’t think Price’s comments do any championing of the Papal claims, and by extension the Catholic position at current. However, I think his commentary on both the Papal claims and the Byzantine claims have to be equally analyzed and weighed fairly before one side claims victory over the other.